Her life was marked
out. Had her marriage to Bert Wilson been a success, she would
have had her 2.4 children and remained the dutiful wife of
her bank manager husband in Cumbria or thereabouts according
to the path of his career. Any musical activity would probably
have been as a piano teacher, coach and accompanist, perhaps
a singer too but probably very localised in the north. Had
the Post Office selected her as the voice of the Speaking
Clock (TIM) we may have heard those Blackburn tones over and
over again, but they didn’t, although they have now made partial
amends by issuing a First Class stamp to mark her centenary.
Instead success led her at every twist and turn at a rate
of knots. She encountered all the good and the great within
(and without) the music profession and they all helped progress
her career from its initial lowlands to its dizzy heights.
It was the briefest of journeys which took her from a thoroughly
domesticised life in Silloth (these entries come from 1942)
up for a change. Did piles of shopping and ironed at night.
Pipes frozen. Stayed in and knitted. Had a hot pot for lunch.
O boy! Knitting bee and dance. Chatter, chatter. Knitted and
listened to the Brains Trust. Put a lot of seeds in
garden. Had bath and hair wash. Busy day filling plant pots
in preparation for tomatoes. Cleaned up, washed and ironed.
Practised., darned, mended. Bath and washed hair.
to the professional
life which started in London in earnest just one year later.
This was her punishing schedule selected from various points
Abbey Messiah 5pm. Isobel Baillie, Peter Pears, William
Parsons. All sorts of folk there. Norwich. Leicester. Aberystwyth.
Nottingham. Elijah. Tired. Travelled in guard’s
van to Newcastle. Broadcast 1.30. Crewe. Frauenliebe und
Leben. Southwark Cathedral. Messiah. Huddersfield.
Messiah. Dunstable Messiah. Todmorden. Messiah.
Bromsgrove. Messiah. Lytham St Annes. Messiah.
Runcorn. Messiah. Royal Albert Hall. Messiah.
elicited regular cris de coeur to John Tillett after
he heard her at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday afternoon 9th
July 1942. ‘Attractive, an excellent voice, even throughout,
very good head register, warm and vibrant, good diction, extensive
compass’, he recorded and put her on the agency’s books. By
the end of 1946 she was pleading with him:
sorry but I would rather you kept July free as well as June
and August. I think I would rather give Liverpool a rest as
I have been so much and have run out of a change of frock
(not to mention repertoire)!
very sorry but I shall have to return this contract for Twickenham.
I can’t possibly do five recitals running, especially with
the Third Programme at the end of the five with eight new
songs I haven’t seen yet!
please ask me before booking any more dates. Having just done
seven concerts in six days in six different towns, am feeling
more than usually weary, not having recovered from travelling
from Stoke to Bradford in five different trains, starting
at 9.26am, catching all the right connections and arriving
late for rehearsal with Dr Sargent and still lunch-less! It
isn’t possible to sing well at this rate.
grind of travelling meant that letters were often addressed
from ‘in train’ and invariably included phrases such as ‘this
train is leaping about’ (1944), ‘this is a whirling
train’ (1944) and ‘this is the joggliest train ever’ (1947).
Her CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts)
tours took her the length and breadth of the country to places
large and small, where she was received with respect, admiration
and warmth. She never forgot concert organisers, local accompanists
(good and bad) or landladies:
more may I say thank you so very much for all your kindness.
It was lovely to be with you again and to be so spoiled. I’m
only sorry the arrangements were mixed and your dinners rushed
as a result. Thank you so very much too for the ½ doz. eggs
which arrived home all intact. I was popular!
had a most peaceful journey to Derby and a lovely concert,
and have since been to Liverpool, Morecambe and Glasgow, so
I hope you will forgive me for not writing sooner, but I seem
to have been either singing, packing or journeying since I
again thank you so very much for all your kindness and generosity
– I am so very grateful to you and your husband.
best wishes and my most sincere thanks
Liken her life
to a chain-link fence and consider each one of its supporting
uprights as a musical contact, any of which a young would-be
performer today would sell his or her soul for. The first
was her piano teacher at Blackburn High School, Frances Walker.
Then came Dr John Hutchinson, an adjudicator who became her
first singing teacher, followed by Alfred Barker former leader
of the Hallé Orchestra (‘This girl has a voice!’). He heard
her sing in a Messiah which he led early in 1942 and
recommended her to Malcolm Sargent (‘Malcolm Sargent. O boy!’),
who in turn sent her to John Tillett in London (‘Audition
went off well. Decided to live in London. Phew!’). She then
found a London-based singing teacher, the fine British baritone
Roy Henderson, who was instructed by Tillett to keep an eye
on her and smooth many rough areas of her platform manner.
Among her accompanists she favoured Phyllis Spurr and John
Newmark but more significantly she impressed and worked often
with the greatest of them all, Gerald Moore. The fence continued.
now proving a lucky work for her, at Westminster Abbey yielded
both Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (‘Oh boy! did my knees
knock!’) and they in turn took her to Glyndebourne for the
premiere of Britten’s new chamber opera Rape of Lucretia
in 1946 (‘am still enjoying being raped three or four times
a week!’). The opera house’s General Manager Rudolph Bing
and the wife of its founder, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, then
established the Edinburgh Festival, inviting Kathleen to participate
(she sang at each of the first six, 1947-1952). From America
they brought over Bruno Walter and from Europe came Peter
Diamand, who took her to the Holland Festival (Kathleen remains
extremely popular in that country). Walter took her to America
(she toured there in 1948, 1949 and 1950), having realised
(after doubting as much) that in Kathleen he had found his
contralto for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde which
he wanted to perform and as a result stimulate a Mahler revival
in Britain. Like so many conductors (Barbirolli was another),
Walter fell in love with her voice and became a close friend
as well as mentor. Her instinctive grasp of Mahler’s style
at a time when his music was rarely broadcast or performed
live is testimony to her musical intelligence, bearing in
mind her lack of formal training at a music college. She was
effectively five years behind the average age of starting
a professional career and it was well nigh impossible to learn
either German or Italian during the war years. So when custom
reverted to singing Lieder and arias in their original languages,
that study became a further addition to the workload of catch-up
which so dominated and frustrated her life. Tuition and coaching
took time and time, as events would prove, was simply not
on her side.
The list of conductors
with whom Kathleen worked is impressive: Ernest Ansermet,
Sir John Barbirolli, Eduard van Beinum, Sir Adrian Boult,
Warwick Braithwaite, Charles Bruck, Fritz Busch, Basil Cameron,
Albert Coates, Meredith Davies, Issay Dobrowen, Georges Enesco,
Walter Goehr, Reginald Goodall, Charles Groves, Julius Harrison,
Reginald Jacques, Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Otto
Klemperer, Clemens Krauss, Josef Krips, Rafael Kubelik, Herbert
Menges, Maurice Miles, Pierre Monteux, Boyd Neel, Karl Rankl,
Clarence Raybould, Fritz Reiner, Stanford Robinson, Hugo Rignold,
Sir Malcolm Sargent, Carl Schuricht, Rudolf Schwarz, Fritz
Stiedry, Walter Susskind, George Szell, Erik Tuxen and Bruno
Walter. Some conductors amongst the uprights in her chain-linked
musical life did not materialise. She never sang under Toscanini.
Beethoven’s Ninth was scheduled for May 4th and 8th 1951 at
London’s new Royal Festival Hall but both of them cancelled
and were replaced by Gladys Ripley and Malcolm Sargent respectively.
Nor did she sing with Furtwängler. He wanted her for three
performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in April
1952 but she was unavailable, while later that year illness
forced him to cancel Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder on
17th November at the Royal Albert Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic,
now conducted instead by Clemens Krauss. She had one encounter
with Thomas Beecham in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at
the Leeds Festival on 3rd October 1950. A nice little anecdote
was reported locally. The booked soprano was Gwen Catley,
who awoke that morning with a cold. Elsie Suddaby was summoned
from London but arrived in Leeds too late for the start of
the afternoon rehearsal. Until she did, Kathleen sang both
early part of the rehearsal was not held up because Miss Kathleen
Ferrier, the contralto, sang both the contralto and soprano
parts – to the evident amusement of Sir Thomas Beecham.
Some works (excluding
songs) she sang only once, among them Beethoven’s ninth symphony
(Walter), Bruckner’s Te Deum (Walter), de Falla’s El
amor brujo (Sargent), Haydn’s Nelson Mass (Krips
but nothing else by Haydn). Surprisingly there was neither
Mozart’s Requiem nor his C minor Mass in her repertoire,
only the Coronation Mass which was scheduled too late.
She sang in the British premiere of Mahler’s third symphony
under Boult on 29th November 1947 as part of a Mahler Festival
put on by the BBC and three of his five Rückert Lieder
and Mahler is a topic in its own right. The first mention
of the composer’s name occurs in her diary for 1 September
1946 and it is simply the title of one of those Rückert songs
written in capital letters: ICH BIN DER WELT ABHANDEN GEKOMMEN
(‘I am lost to the world’), possibly a reminder to prepare
this song for Bruno Walter who she met for the first time
two months later on 4 November in a working audition. On 11
September 1947 at the first Edinburgh Festival she sang the
first of 30 public performances she would sing of Das Lied
von der Erde during the next five years or so (another
five had to be cancelled because of her ill-health). Apart
from singing it with Walter she also sang it under Willem
van Otterloo, Georg Szell, Hugo Rignold, Rudolf Schwarz, Josef
Krips, Otto Klemperer, Basil Cameron, John Barbirolli and
Eduard van Beinum. The number of performances she gave of
Kindertotenlieder is just as impressive, 23 in the
same five years with a further three cancelled. The first
time she sang it was for the BBC under a staff conductor Mosco
Carner on 25th November 1947, then under van Otterloo, Barbirolli,
Krips, Walter Susskind, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, van Beinum,
Erich Kleiber, Karl Rankl, Adrian Boult, Alexander Krannhals,
Antonio Pedrotti, Rignold, Klemperer and Clemens Krauss.
At one point she
sang ten performances of Mahler’s major vocal works accompanied
by orchestra within a year:
October 1949 Kindertotenlieder/Symphony No.2 : RAH
with Bruno Walter
December 1949 Das Lied von der Erde : Liverpool with
March 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Chicago with Fritz Reiner
April 1950 Das Lied von der Erde : Bournemouth with
April 1950 Das Lied von der Erde : London RAH with
May 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Amsterdam with Eduard
May 1950 Kindertotenlieder : London RAH with Eduard
June 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Zurich with Erich Kleiber
September 1950 Kindertotenlieder : BBC Camden Theatre
with Karl Rankl
September 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Swansea Festival
with Adrian Boult
of the second (Resurrection) symphony under Barbirolli
and Krips had to be cancelled during 1953, but she sang two,
the first under Walter at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 October
1949, the other with Klemperer in Amsterdam on 12th July 1951.
He was the one conductor she particularly disliked.
hate to work with Klemperer. I find him gross, bullying, unmoving
and conducting insecurely from memory, because - to quote
his words - that snot Toscanini does! I find he shouts like
a madman - not at me, not bluidy likely - just to try and
impress - though why he should think it impresses I can’t
think. Perhaps his Mahler comes off sometimes, because he
wastes no time nor sentiment - but ohh!!!! whattaman!!
In many ways it
was harder for Kathleen to break into the BBC than into the
higher echelons of society. Having begun her broadcasting
career at the Corporation’s Newcastle studios in the 1930s
as a pianist, she found herself pigeon-holed as an accompanist.
Although several producers recognised her talent, others who
wielded more influence did not. Scouts were sent out to hear
her and some took a pretty dim view of her singing, including
Lennox Berkeley, though in time he changed his view and even
wrote his Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila for her.
heard the above at the National Gallery on December 28th.
She has a fine and powerful voice of real contralto quality,
and seemed to me an accomplished singer. Her intonation was
on the whole very accurate and her diction was good. On the
other hand I found her rather dull; her tone was monotonous.
I cannot imagine that she could ever move one, though there
is no doubt about her competence or the good quality of her
a month later, on 20th January 1943 she auditioned for the
BBC Promenade Concerts with Handel’s ‘Where’er you walk’ and
the aria ‘Softly awakes my heart’ from Samson and Delilah
by Saint Saëns. The report on her was even more qualified,
not to say damning, and unsurprisingly she was turned down.
clarinet-like quality voice, limited in range and technique
at the moment. Good diction. A promising singer, but only
suitable at present for small works such as Bach’s songs from
Schemelli’s Gesangbuch. Sang the Saint Saëns completely
It’s hard to imagine
Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘completely without passion’ and
it took until 1944 before the Corporation (as a whole and
not just certain staff producers) recognised her as a singer
when they saw her bandwagon fast disappearing over the horizon
and leaving them well behind.
there a method by which, since this artist gets so much booked
up, we could reserve her for say three dates per quarter –
even twelve months or more in advance?
As in her own
day when Kathleen could be heard on the Light Programme, Third
Programme or Home Service, we can still do so fairly regularly
today on Radios 2, 3 and 4 as well as Classic FM in programmes
such as Desert Island Discs, Woman’s Hour and
Great Lives. Again it reflects her iconic status in
the minds of so many folk and their highly varied musical
tastes. A talk or programme without her singing either ‘What
is life?’ or ‘Blow the wind southerly’ is unthinkable. Who
has heard anyone else either sing or record unaccompanied
the latter? This is the one folksong above all the others
she sang for which she is renowned. It is first mentioned
in her diary on 23rd January 1949 when she sang it in Holland,
but it would appear that she sang it in public and on the
radio almost a year earlier. On
21st February 1948 Kathleen gave a recital for the Farnham
and Bourne Music Club, whose secretary recalled the occasion
in the programme marking the club’s Diamond Jubilee in 1983.
I think the outstanding personality must be Kathleen Ferrier,
who came with Phyllis Spurr on a snowy February day in 1948.
I asked her if she would give as an encore a folksong which
I had heard her sing a few days previously on a radio programme.
She replied, ‘I've never sung it in public before luv, but
I'll have a go’. I can still see that lovely presence singing
‘Blow the wind southerly’ and feel proud that we heard the
first of what must have been hundreds of subsequent public
radio programmes ‘a few days previously’ consisted of a recital
of music by Stanford on 16th February and Music in Miniature
on 19th February. While the content of the Stanford recital
is known, that for Music in Miniature is not listed
in the Radio Times (and never was for this regular
Interlude or equivalent of television’s potter’s wheel) but
this was probably the first occasion when she first sang ‘Blow
the wind southerly’. On 10th February 1949 she recorded it
for Decca. The rest is history.
Her first of eight
appearances at the Promenade Concerts (1945-1952) was the
Last Night in 1945. Although at the time not the sort of festive
jamboree with its high jinks which that event has since become
(she sang Joan of Arc’s farewell by Tchaikovsky), it meant
nevertheless that she had arrived. She gave a talk entitled
‘My first Opera’ on Woman’s Hour on 6th December 1948: